Chinatown ★★★★★

“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean.”

Chinatown is film noir in color, a return to the hardboiled private detective lost in the jungle of Los Angeles without the censoring and gentrification generally subjected to film noir in black-and-white. Jake Gittes works in an office just like the one occupied by Humphrey Bogart in a certain classic noir: a little reception area with a secretary and another room for himself and his partners. Gittes delivers bad news to his clients in smirking silence, sometimes even warning them before starting on his job. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” he tells a teary housewife, one Mrs Mulwray who wishes to know whether her husband is having an affair. But she isn’t really Mrs Mulwray, just as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon was never who she pretended to be.

One can draw endless parallels between Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, but the oddest homage, if it is accurate to call it that, is the presence of John Huston in the slimiest role in the film. He’s truly detestable here, a predatory old man who eventually comes to embody all the unmentionable perverseness of film noir, everything that happens after the end flashes across the screen.

And Jack Nicholson is charisma personified, following in the footsteps of Humphrey Bogart, whose entire appeal was founded on his rough masculine charm. Like Bogart’s Marlowe, Jack Gittes is cagey about his dark past, seduces the femme fatale with his eyes wide open, and crosses the police more than once, firing off one-liners that they’re never quick enough to respond to. And like Marlowe, Gittes loses everything that matters by the end.

Chinatown is mesmerizing from start to finish, a tantalizing glimpse of what could have been if propriety and moral policing had not induced film noir into delivering all its perversities by way of sly innuendo. The innuendo has its charm, of course, but what if John Huston had been allowed to make The Maltese Falcon with all the freedom granted to Polanski? A film like Chinatown might have come about a few decades earlier.

Chinatown is film noir uncensored, a twisting, shifting tale of deceit and double-crossing and moral wrongs. It is much too slippery to define, or to explain. Its endless shifting layers and its characters make it one of the best film noirs ever made, even if came around about forty years too late. What can you say? It’s Chinatown.

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